Discussion: Note Taking for Meetings

Discussion: Note Taking for Meetings

I recently received an email from reader Anandha asking if I had a sheet for note taking in meetings:

[…] I attend numerous meetings and often find myself writing in a book I carry around. I also use the book for my task list. So the book covers both notes and my to do list. My to do list is usually for the week.

Anandha continues:

I have tried two books – one for notes and another for keeping track of tasks. This workflow is kind of ok, but not that great either. I was going to try 1 book for my to do list, and then take a pad or sheet of paper for meeting notes, and then capture my to do in the master list.. Or maybe you have some thoughts on a better flow for this?

I didn’t remember what I did for meetings, as it’s been a while since I’ve had to attend one with more than one or two people at it. So I wrote:

I tend to just sketch in a large notebook, and force myself to create the todos right afterwards. For a while, I used the AutoFocus system (one of the earlier versions) in a reporter-style Moleskine, with the big notebook (a 9×12) serving for Emergent Task Planner storage for the day. However, I tend to draw my ETP forms, a simplified version, as an excuse to use my fountain pen.

It seemed like an interesting question to pose to everyone, as I’m sure people have a lot of different approaches with corresponding rationales behind their note-taking strategies. Speaking for myself, as I tend to be deliverable-focused:

  • I’m generally trying to accurately capture the concerns and expectations of people at the meeting, because from this I can usually synthesize what actually needs to be done.

  • I’m also keeping track of who is who, who does what, and who else is important on this project. I sometimes draw a picture of a table first, and note who is sitting at what position, so I can match name to face later with a bit more ease.

  • I’m capturing essential deliverables and expectations from them, along with dependencies and related events that depend on our deliverable.

  • I’m capturing trends and reading between the lines regarding confidence, seniority, power-relations within the group, though I don’t usually write this down. A specific question may arise in my mind, though, so I will write that speculatively in a “questions?” part of my page. If the question doesn’t get answered in the course of normal discussion, then I’ll ask it when it seems there’s an appropriate time.

  • If it’s a meeting where I can use a notebook computer with a decent keyboard, I can type almost in real time, capturing whole phrases and expressions as I am talking. This is possible if I’m not a key participant.

  • I will sometimes have a digital camera with high-ISO (so I don’t have to use the flash) to take pictures of key materials and whiteboard contents during and after the meeting. I ask first if it’s OK; many companies don’t like recording devices to be used. I usually don’t use video or audio recording devices; they affect the way people talk, sometimes.


p>The most important thing for me is to distill everything I need to know in the 10-15 minutes after the meeting. This is essential, because it’s the only time I’ll have to note my purest impressions of what’s going on as clearly as I can remember. The moment I talk to someone else on the project, that impression will change based on that person’s preconceptions, so I like to have my “first impression” recorded as a starting point. Also, subsequent interactions with people during the day tend to clutter my memory, so it’s important to right down what’s foremost in my mind at the moment it occurs. After that, I can do whatever I want, and easily return to my mindset a day or even weeks later.

What do you all use to take notes during meetings?


  1. Jaime Robertson 13 years ago

    I’m still struggling with keeping all the notes for each project in one place. I’ve tried a few different ideas. During meetings, however, I ALWAYS have a blue and red pen. Blue for meeting/project notes. Red for action items (mine and other people’s). I usually use “today’s” page from my Franklin planner and if there are action items, I add a post-it tab so I know I need to process. The action items either go into an Access Database I’ve created for Project Action items or into Toodledo. I would love the time or a better process to compile all of the project notes. I have multiple projects and it would be nice to see all of the notes for each project. Still haven’t mastered that yet.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      So what is the problem with the current system, Jaime? It’s cumbersome to gather all the project context in a viewable form?

  2. Joe G 13 years ago

    I have tried 1 moleskine (tasks and notes), 2 moleskines 1 task 1 notes, digital tasks and moleskine notes, pdf type custom form for notes, etc. The break in my chain is always processing them after the fact if it is paper based. They usually go into the paper file abyss (nicely filed never accessed). The laptop does not work because the screen and typing create a barrier to “human” interaction (IMHOP). I found the ipad to be a good all digital solution. But I still want to easily draw diagrams, doodle, mindmap etc. I don’t like the drawing on the ipad, it feels like fingerpainting and/or using a giant crayon. I am hopeful that Ipad 2 will have the resolution to support a decent pen interface. I like the old MS Onenote and pen input but don’t want to pay 2K for my hardware and have a 2 hour battery. Nirvana would be a Onenote type app with pen interface, OCR, iPAD design aesthetic, MS core apps support (word, ppt etc), cloud based storage and a low sticker price. I am setting aside money for ipad 2 in the hopes that it or one of the 50 other tablets announced at CES will pass my bar. I like the droid and have the phone (droid x) but think the apps are much more polished and diverse for the ipad. I think RIM and HP (PALM O/S) have too far to catch up with the apps. With that said I love paper and pens but after a reading a ton of books on my phone (kindle app) and thinking of the younger generation I beleive all digital is inevitable. Its just a question of when note if or even how. All notes and tasks, calendar and contacts will be digital. (not that I particularily like it)

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      Yeah, I hear ya. I’m not sure if we’ll see an iPad 2 with increased resolution helping drawing, since the limiting factor I think is our fat fingers. I’m hopeful that someday we’ll have a nice eInk solution.

      I got one of those LiveScribe pens recently, but haven’t figured out yet how to work it into my own system. The issue is, currently, their own software and its lack of integration with our own homebrew productivity systems. Maybe EverNote will be that, but like you I want the high-quality tactile experience with paper, but with the instantaneous filtering, networked, and event-driven processing of digital.

    • Amanda 13 years ago

      The problem is, all the tablets on the market are being designed by geeks, who think writing is terribly passe (and with their handwriting, frankly, it is), and that if you can’t type, you don’t deserve a tablet.

      They think they’re competing with laptops, and keep trying to make them laptop-like. Only the Kindle has realized that it’s competing with paper.

  3. Andy 13 years ago

    I have been thinking about this lately as my meetings quotient has risen dramatically. No set pattern yet, mostly handwritten notes but lacking cohesion. I am looking at a gadget focussed approached based around the LiveScribe smart pen which records as you write and can transfer handwritten notes electronically to pc. You can also sync with EverNote I believe. The pen use a special microdot paper that can be printed at home, you should be able to use the forms on this site and have electronic copies of the printable ceo (just thought of that while I was writing!). Adding my android smart phone to the mix would be good for capturing whiteboards.


    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      It strikes me that one of the main barriers in the meeting notes arena is perhaps ease of input. Because meetings are fast-moving (relatively speaking) face-to-face interactions where we’re using a great deal of our social processing powers, less time is available for focused note taking. However, we have to switch modes once we get back to our desks, eke out a clear sense of direction from our chicken scratching, and be able to move forward confidently to make progress. Digital capture is too cumbersome to organize on-the-fly, unless you are already very fast at it. But if you are, you are not likely paying attention to the meeting in a way that makes you a “team player”, maintaining eye contact and forming a good working relationship with your peers.

      Challenge points:

      • comfortable capture
      • ease of review and processing into helpful guidelines for your part of the project
      • maintaining continuity of what you did over several meetings-worth of notes
      • confidence in what needs to be done, and how it should be done

      It probably also depends on the kind of meetings you are having and the scope of what you’re talking about. I can think of at least three kinds with different data capture needs.

  4. Pat 13 years ago


    Long-time reader, first comment. I’ve struggled with this exact topic for a decade, and the more I manage (and the less I turn the metaphorical crank) the more I need to rely on my meeting notes for everything from personality nuances to deliverables. I have the classic personal-organization history of trying everything GTD to mega-simple, all paper to all digital, trying to find the right approach.

    With regard to note-taking, while I don’t yet have The Answer (even for my own individual needs) I have found one very important criterion for success in my usage patterns: flexibility above all else. If I ever have a thought, idea, question, or inspiration and then hestitate thinking “how do I capture this thing on paper/data, because it doesn’t really seem to fit quite right anywhere into what’s in front of me… maybe I’ll just remember it for later” that system/approach/tool has failed spectacularly.

    For the record, I’m currently using a blank letter-sized pad of paper. Each page can become a sketch, data table, memo, handout, list of deliverables, page of notes, etc. Anything beyond a blank pad makes me spend energy deciding where things go. Even using a blank notebook bothered me when I wanted to rearrange pages or file pages separately later on. Clearly the digital options available would be over-constraining as well.

    Clearly my interest in this discussion suggests that I haven’t found all of the answers, but I thought I’d share where I am now. Thanks for hosting a good conversation.


  5. Stephen Smith 13 years ago

    One of the things that we do at the hotel during our weekly meetings is have one person take down the minutes and then distribute them afterward. This is a big help to me in that I usually just try to jot down my own actionable items, and it serves as a reminder if I am waiting on input from another manager.

    I keep a moleskine notebook that is broken up into 4 sections, 2 of them for the two kinds of meetings that I have on a weekly basis. This helps me when I review and process the old in-box.

  6. Amanda 13 years ago

    I use a binder, with blank sheets, lined sheets, and dividers. When I sit down at a meeting, I open to a blank page, and take notes to my heart’s content, in whatever order and orientation I feel like (with diagrams where helpful).

    At the end of the meeting, I move the page from the “large hunk of blank pages” section of my binder, to the “clients” section of my binder. I also take the opportunity to rewrite notes that are likely to prove cryptic later, and to jot down the ideas from the meeting that I didn’t get a chance to write while I was (as Dave points out) processing facial expressions and using body language to show my interest.

    And I always use at least two colors of pens: blue or black for notes, and pink/orange/red for to-dos and questions. At a seminar where I expect to have lots and lots and lots of notes, I use some subset of: black = notes from the presenter blue = my thoughts and ideas red = to-dos pink = questions (to be asked when the presenter stops and says, “Any questions?”) It doesn’t take long to switch between pens, and it makes the notes much easier to read.

  7. Krisitne 13 years ago

    Great post idea. I have spent several years finding a system that works for me. I wear several different hats. I have a full-time job as an Operations / Administrative Assistant with Project Management and Technical Documentation responsibilities. I also am helping launch a non-profit that is using martial arts movement therapy with children with special needs. My third major project is assisting my boyfriend launch and run a freelance graphic design business in Northern Arizona.

    I attend a variety of meetings for the different projects that I am involved with. I live by my LiveScribe pen. I use the large size (8.5 x 11) spiral notebooks for all formal meetings (informal “drop ins” are captured differently). I use a different color notebook for each of my three distinct roles. For voice mails, phone calls, and drop-in / hallway requests I use a half-sized spiral notebook to capture all of those notes chronologically, again with my LiveScribe pen. (The best part of the LiveScribe pen is I sync all notes to a desktop application that is searchable!)

    On the front of the smaller notebook I paperclip today’s Mini ETP sheet. (I use the PCEO-ETP03-0T7-USMINI version). I start each day by inserting any time-specific items, blocking that area out. I then fill in the major tasks for the day. The lower portion, “What Else is Going On Today” section becomes my log of unexpected items that happen each day. (I use one version of this for my full-time job and another version of the same process and tools is shared between my non-profit work, freelance work, and assisting in the operations side of my boyfriend’s start-up. None of these projects has become involved enough to justify their own set of tools.)

    My master task list for work is an Excel spreadsheet using Auto-Filters for due date, completed, subject, and who is responsible (myself or my assistant). My master task list for other projects and personal items is GTasks, which syncs nicely with my Android phone. I use these to determine the most important 3 tasks to work on each day.

    It sounds like a lot of steps, but the whole process takes me ~ 1 hour on Sunday nights to update master task lists and think about the upcoming week and ~ 5 minutes every morning to map that day. My stress level is greatly reduced, I am able to keep multiple balls int he area simultaneously, and most importantly, I actually get things done now. ;)

    I hope this helps inspire some ideas in you.

    Best of luck finding your system Kristine

  8. Bob 13 years ago

    Take a look at Circa from Levenger. I’ve been using this product for years and think its great. I can take the 3X5 card flip notepad everywhere I go and simply snap the cards into the master notebook for each project. I usually carry either the junior or letter size to meetings; use the 3X5 card when at conferences. The smaller format slips into my pocket and leaves my hands free for networking or coffee. Buy a desktop Circa hole punch as well. http://www.levenger.com

    • Katie 13 years ago

      I’m with Bob on this one – I’ve used a wide variety of paper-based and electronic note taking – about 70% of my time (I’m a market research manager) is spent in meetings – and Circa has been the best for me. I carry the Junior size to meetings (or the Letter size if it’s a client meeting) and then can reorder things as I want (i have many project binders) after the meeting, throughout the project, and then to archive it. I’m a certified Circa addict now :)

  9. Anandha 13 years ago

    Interesting comments and ideas. I’m glad I’m not the only one having difficulty working this out. I’m thinking of trying a Randy Pausch like single notepad editable text file with a forced ranked list of tasks. I might try google docs as I can get to this from my iphone & home + 1 A4 book for meeting notes. Each of my directs / weekly one on one meetings have their own small a5 book. This way if I need to tell them something, that goes in their book.

    Thanks for posting up the question David. And good luck all, Anandha